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Keeping the Data Promise

  |  June 19, 2012   |  Comments

A look inside the agency at the state of data and how we can do better. Part two in a three-part series.

In my last column, I castigated the agencies' dependency on the Microsoft Office toolset and highlighted the process inefficiencies that agencies have been saddled by as a result. In essence, the tools available to agencies don't sufficiently manage the dynamic nature of managing a client's media investment. As account teams grow and digital spend continues to increase, this pain point becomes excruciating for the agency. A clear byproduct of this manual state is the loss of a critical agency asset - the data and insights derived from acting over many cycles as the steward of their client's media spend.

Neither Excel, nor ad servers, nor finance systems allow agencies to benefit from the market knowledge gained through interacting over countless contact points with the sales side of this industry. When the critical, granular detail of an agency's buying history is contained in countless Excel documents on planners' desks, or perhaps in an aggregated fashion in a finance system, the agency fails to benefit from leveraging the invaluable insight gained over many cycles of interacting, negotiating, and buying from sellers in the media market.

As anyone inside the agency will tell you, data exists in a disorganized fashion, leading to a critical loss in business performance and effectiveness. Things are never quite as they should be, when it comes to data at the agency.

Yet, no one wishes to remain complacent. After all, this state of affairs inside the agency is very much at odds with the explicit promise of our industry. From the beginning, we have been touting the promise of data and the ability of digital to drive better business results through data analytics.

Digital media's promise is accountability, yet having to manually capture, massage, aggregate, cleanse, then leverage data across multiple systems and technologies, in order to deliver results and thus fulfill digital's greater accountability - is sadly drowning the agency in manual process. The data disconnect from multiple point solutions, not integrated at a data-mapping or taxonomy level, is killing the agency's ability to deliver insights and leverage this supposed data asset. We must bridge this gap. So, what solution can best assist the agency world as it strives to deliver on the promise of data?

What Is the Agency's Data Problem?

To start, data typically is stored in a disorganized, disaggregated, and decentralized fashion. This leads to sub-optimal insights, time and time again. Not only is data often decentralized, it usually is not uniformly labeled, often the result of individuals labeling or categorizing data in a fashion that makes good sense to them.

In these instances, agencies lose much of their ability to leverage their data in a rolled-up fashion. In this cobbled state, most agencies don't have the capacity to readily access and leverage their investment data, nor leverage performance data across markets, let alone campaigns. This disarray is the first big problem.

Other issues include the poor, non-line-item input of data into the finance system - rendering that essential system at the heart of the media agency an inadequate source of investment data. It's almost impossible to derive complete, actionable analysis for clients in the current state of finance and data systems at agencies. Yet, financials are so integral to the work agencies do.

In our ongoing research at my company, through which we've heard from over 500 agency insider respondents and conducted over 40 agency systems audits, we have seen very clear, self-reported trends by the agencies themselves. They know the issues (and that's a start).

In most cases, data is decentralized, living in disparate Excel documents or disconnected ad serving or finance systems. From our research, some examples of this are:

  • Agency practitioners are not instructed in the value of uniform data or disciplined in how they enter data into the tools and systems employed by the agency. So, no working culture exists around this. Only 32 percent of data is entered into the finance system at line-item level. Without this, the finance system cannot be employed as a valuable source of investment data. Investment data is therefore extremely ad hoc.
  • Typically, agencies haven't invested in the technology to deliver a centralized repository of their key data sets. Seventy-five percent of agency staff surveyed are unable to access a central repository of investment history and 85 percent of agency staff are unable to access a central repository of performance history. Those with their hands directly on client business are operating without the necessary visibility to perform analysis.
  • 79 percent of agency staff relies on naming conventions in the ad server to manage client reporting. These naming conventions are however entered manually leading to human error and, where applied, specific to individual clients as opposed to the agency, meaning it's presently impossible to aggregate performance data within an agency. This once again highlights the prevailing mode of manual handling that exists inside the agency.

What if We Could Fix This?

Agencies need to be able to access and easily leverage their data asset to benefit their clients. This value they could provide to their clients in a more automated, centralized state comes in the form of:

  • Real-time analytics and decision-making
  • Consumer insight
  • Performance benchmarking
  • Optimization of the planning and buying process in particular

But, as our findings show, most agencies don't have the capacity to readily access and leverage their key data assets or investment and performance data, in this way. So, the insights they deliver, to guide decisions, understand the consumer, benchmark, and even optimize, are constrained by the limitations of data analysis. Instead, they factor in a great deal of anecdotal insights, off-the-cuff hypothesis, or learning from other past client work.

Resolving these disparities and disconnects will allow agencies to ground their decisions in real-time, cross-platform data as well as derive more informed insights and benchmarking scenarios. And, their optimization aptitude becomes that much stronger. There is still a place for anecdotal insights, hypotheses, leveraging of past client case history - but strong, real-time data must be at the core of the operation and our systems supporting it must thrive.

What Are the Business Stakes?

Looking at these issues and examples, we can imagine the day-to-day friction, but there are greater stakes at play. Failure to address the state of data systems affects the agencies' business performance at multiple levels, such as:

  • Buying performance. Lack of real-time access to a centralized repository compromises their ability to effectively negotiate the most competitive price available for media inventory. This issue is compounded further by the high staff turnover in agencies and the speed at which new recruits are promoted.
  • Performance benchmarking and optimization. With a uniform data asset, the agency has the ability to compare the performance of inventory across campaigns and clients, to calculate an anticipated return on investment; highly valuable data with the potential to optimize the planning and buying process. This speaks directly to what we as an industry have promised to our clients. It's the core promise of data, and we're not upholding it, putting our client business at risk.
  • Consumer insight. Is now largely derived from data, less so the traditional forms of qualitative and quantitative research. Failure to leverage the data leads to poor consumer insight.

Those agencies that address these issues can expect to considerably enhance their overall business performance and gain competitive advantage.

So, What Is the Solution?

Really, there is only one solution: technology. Technology that has the capacity to do three things:

  • Centralize the storage of the agency's data asset.
  • Automatically apply uniformity to the data by legislating upstream workflow so that data is consistently inputted into various systems in a consistent fashion.
  • Provide a suite of tools that enables the agency to access the data in real time and derive the insights required from it.

Like so many aspects of imperfect agency life, business can continue status quo - despite known impediments. Agency teams are accustomed to dealing with it. But, we're at a turning point. Given the increased level of automation within the media business as a whole - and the need to collaborate mechanically on so many levels with other parties - the agency's core technology must strengthen for it to compete. It's the agency that has a strong, integrated system and a commitment to the underpinning supportive technology that will be freed up from all this toil. Freed up to be more strategic, more innovative, and more nimble at every turn.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julian Baring

Julian Baring is executive vice president, North America, of Facilitate Digital, a publically listed Australian technology firm, providing software and services to digital media agencies and advertisers. These include a best-in class digital campaign workflow solution called Symphony that is revolutionizing the online advertising value-chain, by integrating the media-agency, creative agency, and publishers into one system.

Julian has been with Facilitate Digital since 2007 when he joined to open the London office and build the European business. He was previously a partner at Portobello Ventures, a start-up incubator. Prior to that Julian worked as part of founding team building and launching Platefood, an enterprise software search technology venture that was acquired by FAST in 2006. Julian also was one of the first employees at Vizzavi a pan-European multi-access portal joint-venture between Vodafone and Vivendi. He started his career working at Saatchi & Saatchi and then BBDO in New York and has an MBA from Oxford University.

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